A bit later than expected, Loon has finally launched its balloon-powered 4G internet service in Kenya. Through a partnership with Telkom Kenya, the balloons have served 35,000 customers and are covering about 50,000 square kilometres. Loon has been used to make voice and video calls, browse the web, email, text, access WhatsApp and stream YouTube.
Loon plans to use a fleet of about 35 balloons in Kenya, and it describes the system as a “carefully choreographed and orchestrated balloon dance.” At any given time, a balloon might be actively serving users, operating as a link in the mesh network to beam internet to other vehicles or repositioning itself via machine learning algorithms.
The balloons hover about 12 miles up in the stratosphere, and in a recent field test, Loon recorded an uplink speed of 4.74 Mpbs, a downlink speed of 18.9 Mbps and a latency of 19 milliseconds. Proponents hope this will help close the digital divide by providing affordable internet to previously unserved or underserved areas.
Loon got its start as an Alphabet “moonshot” in 2011. In 2018 it spun off into its own company and began working with Telkom Kenya. It hoped to launch the balloon-based service in 2019, but it didn’t get final approval from the Kenyan government until early this year, when the balloons were fast-tracked to improve communication during the pandemic.
Loon says this is just the beginning. It has already provided emergency communication following disasters like Hurricane Maria and an earthquake in Peru. Next, it plans to launch commercial service in Mozambique and parts of the Peruvian rainforest.